Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Atheists and Christians in Conversation

by Christi Sevits

This past Thursday, a lively discussion took place in the Sullivan Science building between atheists and Christians. The event, aptly named Atheists and Christians in Conversation, drew an impressive crowd of over two hundred. Dialogue between the religious and nonreligious has the potential to get heated fast, and Atheists and Christians in Conversation was no exception. Shying away from the tension of religious discussion is precisely why the conversation was necessary in the first place. Nothing will be resolved unless we talk about it in the open!

Two of our own members, UNCG students Bobby Littlejohn and Julia Alexander, represented the secular viewpoint. English professor Chris Hodgkins and local pastor Jeff Miller represented the Christians. Club President Phillip Drum was the moderator. The debate was sponsored by our group as well as Christian apologist organization Ratio Christi.

The debate began with an introduction from each of the panelists. Each side then had the opportunity to question the other, allowing for rebuttals when necessary. The last segment consisted of answering written questions from the audience. There were questions addressed to individual panelists, one side or the other, and some to both sides. The inquiries ranged from the common "Where do atheists get their morality from?" to "Are non-Christians like Gandhi in Hell?"

Despite the tension, the panelists were respectful to one another. The audience refrained from outbursts (other than us atheists briefly scoffing at Dr. Hodgkins' statement that the United States was a "Christian nation"). Overall, the environment remained positive and engaging. Even after the debate, several curious audience members approached the panelists to ask any unanswered questions they had.

This was the first time Bobby and Julia represented our club in a campus discussion, but they didn't let the stress get to them.

"I really appreciated being able to participate in this event," Bobby commented.  "We had a passionate yet respectful discussion and I think we were both able to better understand where the other side was coming from. With so much religious strife in the world right now, I think the issues we talked about are more important than ever."

Julia expressed similar sentiments, saying "It was a good experience. There were lots of logical fallacies, but it was non-hostile and lots of fun."

Great job, Bobby and Julia!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

2011/12 Year in Review

"Pay attention. Atheists are here. In just a few short years, the movement has gone from zero to sixty, in both visibility and mobilization. And the atheist movement is largely comprised of people who are passionate, compassionate, courageous, Internet savvy, skilled at seeing through bullshit, willing to defy the status quo, excited about activism... and dedicated to changing the world. After all, as far as they're concerned, it's the only world they've got. You want these people on your side."

Those in the greater activist community often reflect on how to develop strong community organizations.  Many variables are cited: internal democracy and camaraderie, diversity, distribution of leadership and labor, fundraising, charity, political involvement, coalition building, campus exposure, national relevance, and party rocking to name just a few.  The UNCG Atheists, Agnostics and Skeptics encompass these variables and reflect the buzz of New Atheism.

Just a few years ago, there was actually no secular group for students at UNCG. Street preachers, evangelical student groups, and a religious culture that permeates day-to-day life in Greensboro, persisted largely unchallenged in its hegemony. Then in 2009, Phillip Drum took the initiative to challenge the status quo, establishing a student organization that provides community for the non-religious, as well as a platform to advocate reason and secularism in the heart of the Bible-Belt. And in 2010, through the leadership  of Robert Eldredge, the foundation of community and activism was built upon and continues to flourish.  We've coordinated lively and stimulating debates, adopted a highway, lobbied for the separation of church and state, weighed the pivotal philosophical questions of our day, exposed collegiate superstitions and thrown on our aviators to have a good time.

Rather than sputtering out on the fumes of what some predicted to be the merely fashionable passions of a cultural shift away from religion, our organization continued to grow and mature during this past year school year.  Scan the list below to see how active we've become! We simply could not have done this without the broad-based dedication, intelligence and passion of our wonderfully godless members: hours of tabling, blood donations, charitable church-going, trash removal, or Reddit re-posts (y'all find the gems of /r/atheism.) Our impact in the community is profound and critical to the flourishing of freethinking and science education. Love of rational inquiry has brought us together, common cause has united us, and the reality of a more secular and ethical civilization will continue to mobilize us.  Thank you so much for your commitment and goodwill!

For those who were unable to be very involved this year, here's a brief recap:
  • 27 weekly meetings! At these meetings, we organized events, promoted our ongoing work to fight back against the (religiously inspired) homophobic assault on human dignity in NC, and held group discussions on various topics relating to atheism and contemporary events.  Our weekly meetings provided opportunities to get to know other students/alumni in the atheist/agnostic movement, as well as ways to personally get involved promoting critical thinking in the Bible Belt! Thanks to everyone who made these meetings vibrant and worthwhile: Jessica SmithMegan & Cody, Bethany Barnes, James Muldoon, James Hayes, James Gemperline, James Mabe, Charlie Needham, Tommy O'Connell, Christi Sevits, Scott Parker, Dan Elder, Christopher Cifani, Robert Antonio, Dan Whitaker, Jessica Lacy, Lindsay Welch, Robert Eldredge, Daniel Foster, Joshua Deaton, Josette & Jonah, Bobby Littlejohn, Zach Webb Katherine Fallows, Cam, Whitney McDavid, Logan Sweatt, Ashley Hickman Amanda Murray, and Julia Alexander!
  • 5 Science Sundays! About one Sunday a month, we would get together to discuss the week's science news and watch relevant documentaries. The UNCG Atheists, Agnostics & Skeptics host these meetings in order to encourage scientific literacy in the broader community, and to celebrate how modern science continues to shape our lives. Thank you Robert for hosting!
  • Tabled in the EUC on 31 different days: Tabling allowed members of our group to promote critical thinking about religion on our university campus, as well as provided opportunities to increase the public visibility of non-theists. We’re here (in your schools, workplaces, and families), we’re godless, get used it!  Thank you Jessica Smith and everyone who took an hour to table!
  • Hosted three guest speakers (Thank you Dan Whitaker for recording!)
1)      September 15, 2011: Asheville city councilman Cecil Bothwell offered his reflections from personal experience on the importance of the separation of church and state;
2)      Jan 17, 2012: Fred Edwords presented his talk entitled, 'Beyond the Bare Bones: What Evolution is Teaching Us.' Our friends from the Triangle Freethought Society helped make this evening possible. Fred Edwords is National Director of the United Coalition of Reason, as well as a faculty member of the Humanist Institute, National Director of the International Darwin Day Foundation, and serves on the Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Human Origins Initiative at the Smithsonian Institution.
3)      March 20, 2012: Herb Silverman presented his talk entitled, ‘Candidate without a Prayer.’ In 1990, Dr. Silverman ran for governor of South Carolina to challenge an unconstitutional provision that barred atheists from holding public office. After an eight-year battle, he won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court, which struck down this religious test requirement. He is the author of Candidate without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt, with a foreword by Richard Dawkins. Dr. Silverman earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Syracuse University and is now a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the College of Charleston. He’s also the president of the Secular Coalition of America.
  • Screened 4 films, with post-viewing group discussions!
1)      For the Bible Tells Me So (October 27, 2011)
2)      Letting Go of God (November 10, 2011)
3)      Charles Darwin & the Tree of Life (February 2, 2012)
4)      Intelligent Design on Trial  (February 16, 2012)
  • Skeptically evaluated the psychic claims of a local woman;
  • Hosted a Blood Drive on campus for the Red Cross (Thank you James Gemperline!);
  • Raised over $200 for the American Red Cross via our Send an Atheist to Church campaign; 
  • Helped raise nearly $500 for the Disabled American Veterans
  • Held our first Secular Humanist Thanksgiving Potluck!
  • Held our first Winter Solstice Celebration
  • Maintained our Adopt a Street sign on Wendover Avenue by keeping our section of the street clean!
  • Space Jam with Dr. Danford (Thanks Katherine!)  at the Three College Observatory (February 21, 2012): We took a group trip to the Three College Observatory where Dr. Danford gave us a glimpse into the Cosmos using a telescope that can collect approximately 26,000 times as much light as the human eye and is the largest telescope in North Carolina.
  • Monty Python Movie Marathon
  • Great Friday Celebration: In place of Good Friday groveling, we decided to have a friggin' GREAT FRIDAY, where we celebrated LIFE and LOVE and FRIENDSHIP by having a party. And it really was a fantastic time, filled with Peep s'mores, unholy libations, and all around general merriment!
  • Reason Rally! On February 24, nearly twenty of our members traveled to DC to take part in the largest gathering of non-theists in our nation’s history! Hella fun!
  • We Are Campaign! Robert Eldredge, Lindsay Welch and Tommy O’Connell (all current or former officers of our group) started and organized a massive campaign in Greensboro to defeat a religiously inspired homophobic amendment to the NC constitution that will be on the ballot this May. Through their efforts, our group has been able to take a stand for human rights in front of city council, take part in a benefit concert, car wash, and a host of other activities. The 'We Are Campaign' has allowed us non-religious folk to take an active role in trying to make our community more just, and to partner with religious organizations who share a similar humanistic vision. It cannot be stated strongly enough how important their work has been. A special shout-out has to go to Robert and Lindsay: They’ve worked tirelessly on this campaign, and our group is going to miss them terribly when they move away after this semester.
And as great as this year has been, it’s just going to keep getting better! On April 13, our group elected the officers for the 2012/13 school year. The new officers will be: President Phillip Drum; Vice Presidents Julia Alexander and Jessica Smith; Secretary Katherine Fallows; and Treasurer Tommy O’Connell. This is quite the line-up of stellar infidels, and you can bet on some exciting things for next year!

Thanks again to everyone who helped make this such an incredible year!

Signing off,
Daniel Foster, Minister of Propaganda
Joshua Deaton, President

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Great Friday!

Like many other public institutions, the UNCG campus was closed Friday, April 6 in order to honor 'Good Friday.'  Many of our Christian friends and family commemorated this 'most holy of days' by reflecting on the (largely a-historical) execution of a Jewish peasant by Roman occupying forces in 1st century Palestine... Which is then somehow translated into the age-old story of satiating the anger of the gods by human sacrifice.

The UNCG AAS, however, decided to have a friggin' GREAT FRIDAY, where we celebrated LIFE and LOVE and FRIENDSHIP by having a party at Robert's home. And it really was a fantastic time, filled with Peep s'mores, unholy libations, and all around general merriment! 

So to all those who continue to invite us to kneel before barbarism and superstition this Easter season, we say: No thanks! We're good without god.

Christopher Hitches: "Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

This Lent Season

by Thomas O'Connell

Right now over a billion Catholics are in the middle of Lent, the recognition of the liturgical year from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday. Although it varies in different denominations, for Catholics Lent consists of 40 days and nights in which believers are expected to fast, pray and give to one’s neighbor. A tradition for many Catholics during this time period is giving up a vice. This can consist of giving up drinking, smoking, eating sweets or reality TV. When I was trying to get back involved with the church in High School I stopped watching political news/journalism (suffice to say I never practiced lent again).

            It’s ironic then that the Catholic Church which sullied it’s reputation in the last twenty years would ask its parishioners to sacrifice during this time. While African Catholics continued attending mass and prayed for comfort in sickness and relief from poverty the Vatican refused to acknowledge the benefits of contraception in preventing STD’s and unwanted pregnancies. When LGBT Catholics were praying for acceptance from disapproving families and communities, the Vatican railed against the evils of homosexuality and the “gay marriage lobby.” And when young boys spent their nights asking god to protect them from the perverse intentions of local priests, the Church preceded to cover up the abuse while making no effort to protect these children in the future. If this were any developed and democratic state, the ruling party would be ousted for corruption and incompetence and there would be serious repercussions for public officials who continued such failed policies.

            Unfortunately church authority isn’t subjected to democratic accountability and continues to prop up abusive men and engage in missionary crusades in Central Africa that are counter-productive to stopping the spread of HIV-AIDS. Yet the pope and archbishops continue to complain when numerous followers flee their churches for other denominations or no denomination at all. Unfortunately, there are many that do put up with the ridiculousness of the Vatican and spend a good sum of their lives working with the church. They do so in the hope that their efforts will better the lives of the poor and destitute. I know many of these people in my own life, they go to mass and recite the Nicene Creed but also shutter in sadness when confronted with such abhorrent behavior. Many atheists and skeptics criticize these people for naïveté and continued support for a rotten institution. Yes. Those complaints are valid. But our anger and frustration should be pointed at those unjustly wielding power and setting policies that are contrary to reason and popular will.

            So on that note I have a few recommendations for what the leaders of the Church can give up during this Lent season. First, come clean with the systemic sexual abuse that’s been occurring for who knows how long.  Turn over those responsible for the cover-up and/or abuse and cooperate with local authorities. Second, give up the absurd notion that people can refrain from having sex. Allow men and women to make their own choices when it comes to birth control. Third, stop advancing discrimination towards gays and lesbians that are no longer compatible with modernity. Many in the LGBT community are your congregants, your brothers and sister and it’s disrespectful to them and their families to continue such policies. Lastly and most importantly tear town the patriarchal structure! Most of these problems stem from the fact that women do not hold positions of power in the church. Women are less likely to abuse children and more likely to report abuse. Women are also more likely to support birth control and reproductive rights as well as women’s education, which unlike evangelizing actually lifts communities and individuals out of poverty. Some will say these changes are too radical but what’s sad is many sects of Christianity adopted these practices a long time ago. The Church authority can either join modern society and liberal Christianity or continue to lose followers and it’s reputation. Either way, asking followers to choose between sex and Call of Duty every year isn’t helping.

Friday, March 2, 2012

New Testament Apocalyptic Mythology & 20th Century Totalitarianisms

by Paul Berman

Lenin and his many heirs, together with Mussolini and his own heirs, all of them, left-wingers and right-wingers alike, spinning variations on a single impulse.  And Camus…had noticed a modern impulse to rebel, which had come out of the French Revolution and the 19th century and had very quickly, in the name of an ideal, mutated into a cult of death.  And the ideal was always the same, though each movement gave it a different name.  It was not skepticism and doubt.  It was the ideal of submission.  It was submission to the kind of authority that liberal civilization had slowly undermined, and which the new movements wished to reestablish on a novel basis.  It was the ideal of the one, instead of the many.  The ideal of something godlike.  The total state, the total doctrine, the total movement.  ‘Totalitarian’ was Mussolini’s word; and Mussolini spoke for all.

Each of the movements adopted the same set of rites and symbols to express that ideal: the crowds chanting en masse, the monumental architecture, the belief in personal renunciation, the insistence on unquestioning belief in preposterous doctrines.  Each of the movements chose its own monochrome symbol, representing the oneness of authority: red, brown, black.  Each of the movements donned the identical uniform, which was a shirt—red, brown, and black.  Each of the movements recounted a theory about history and mankind, which explained the movement’s goals and actions.  And each of those theories, in red, in brown, or in black, followed the contours of a single Ur-myth—in the 20th century, the deepest myth of all.  This was something else entirely—biblical, and not from the Old Testament, either.

I am not the first to stumble across that most powerful of modern myths or to comment on it.  Norman Cohn analyzed it in his classic study of the late Middle Ages, The Pursuit of the Millennium.  André Glucksmann returned to the same myth in his book about the end of the Cold War, Le XI◦ Commandment.  And yet—how to explain this?—a full recognition of the power and nature of that myth seems to have escaped the modern sensibility, as if, even now, we are blind to the reigning ideas of our own time.  The myth, in any case, is the one that you find in that strangest and most thrilling of writings, the Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine.  There is a people of God, St. John tells us.  The people of God are under attack.  The attack comes from within.  It is a subversive attack mounted by the city dwellers of Babylon, who are wealthy and have access to things from around the world, which they trade—gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, linen, purple, silk, scarlet, thyme, ivory, precious wood, brass, iron, marble, cinnamon, odors, ointments, frankincense, wine, oil, flour, wheat, beasts, sheep, horses, chariots, not to mention slaves and the souls of men.

These city dwellers have sunk into abomination.  They have been polluted by the whore of Babylon.  (This story, too, has its sexual component.)  The pollution is spreading to the people of God.  Such is the attack from within.  There is also an attack from without—conducted from afar by the forces of Satan, who is worshipped at the synagogue of Satan.  But these attacks, from within and without, will be violently resisted.  The war of Armageddon will take place.  The subversive and polluted city dwellers of Babylon will be exterminated, together with all their abominations.  The Satanic forces from the mystic beyond will be fended off.  The destruction will be horrifying.  Yet there is nothing to fear: the destruction will last only an hour.  Afterward, when the extermination is complete, the reign of Christ will be established and will endure a thousand years.  And the people of God will live in purity, submissive to God.

Such was the Ur-myth…

…But the full myth in its modern version, the story of Babylon and Armageddon as a complete narrative and not just as a set of startling images suitable for poets, came into its own only in the years after the First World War, and not as poetry or literature but as political theory.  The great theoreticians of the new 20th century political movements, one theoretician after another, labored hard at refashioning the myth, and each new theoretician produced a version that looked utterly unlike everyone else’s.  Yet as Glucksmann has shown, every one of those modern versions of the ancient Ur-myth kept more or less rigorously to the general shape and texture of the biblical original.

There was always a people of God, whose peaceful and wholesome life had been undermined.  They were the proletariat or the Russian masses (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the children of the Roman wolf (for Mussolini’s Fascists); or the Spanish Catholics and the Warriors of Christ the King (for Franco’s Phalange); or the Aryan race (for the Nazis).  There were always subversive dwellers in Babylon who trade commodities from around the world and pollute society with their abominations.  They were the bourgeoisie and the kulaks (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the Freemasons and cosmopolitans (for the Fascists and Phalangists); and, sooner or later, they were always the Jews (for the Nazis, and in a lesser degree for the other fascists, and eventually for Stalin, too).

The subversive dwellers in Babylon were always aided by Satanic forces from beyond, and the Satanic forces were always pressing on the people of God from all sides.  They were the forces of capitalist encirclement (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the pincer pressure of Soviet and American technology, squeezing the life out of Germany (in Heidegger’s Nazi interpretation); or the international Jewish conspiracy (again for the Nazis).  Yet, no matter how putrid and oppressive was the present, the reign of God always beckoned in the future.  It was going to be the Age of the Proletariat (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the resurrected Roman Empire (for the Fascists); or explicitly the Reign of Christ the King (for the Spanish Phalange); or the Third Reich, meaning the resurrected Roman Empire in a blond Aryan version (for the Nazis).

The coming reign was always going to be pure—a society cleansed of its pollutants and abominations.  It was going to be the purity of unexploited labor (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the purity of Roman grandeur (for the Fascists); or the purity of Catholic virtue (for the Phalange); or the biological purity of Aryan blood (for the Nazis).  Yet no matter how these several components of the myth were labeled, the coming reign was always going to last a thousand years—that is, was going to be a perfect society, without any of the flaws, competition, or turmoil that make for change and evolution.  And the structure of that purified, unchanging, eternal reign was always going to be the same.  It was going to be the one-party state (for the Bolsheviks, the Fascists, the Phalange, and the Nazis)—a society whose very structure ruled out any challenge to its own shape and direction, a society that had achieved the final unity of mankind.  And every one of those states was governed in the same fashion, by a great living symbol, who was the Leader.

The Leader was a superman.  He was a genius beyond all geniuses.  He was the man on horseback who, in his statements and demeanor, was visibly mad, and who, in his madness, incarnated the deepest of all the anti-liberal impulses, which was the revolt against rationality.  For the Leader embodied a more than human force.  He wielded the force of History (for the Bolsheviks and Communists); or the force of God (for the Catholic Fascists); or the force of the biological race (for the Nazis).  And, because this person exercised power that was more than human, he was exempt from the rules of moral behavior, and he showed his exemption, therefore his divinelike quality, precisely by acting in ways that were shocking.

Lenin was the original model of such a Leader—Lenin, who wrote pamphlets and philosophical tracts with the confidence of a man who believes the secrets of the universe to be at his fingertips, and who established a weird new religion with Karl Marx as god, and who, after his death, was embalmed like a pharaoh and worshipped by the masses.  But Il Duce was no less a superman.  Stalin was a colossus.  About Hitler, Heidegger, bug-eyed, said, ‘But look at his hands.’

Those leaders were gods, every one of them.  There was a god like that in every movement and in every country, someone deranged, virile, all-powerful, a god who thrilled his worshipful followers, a hero with blood on his hands, someone freed of the humiliating limitations of ordinary morality, someone who could gaze on life and death with blasé equanimity, someone who put no value on life, who could order mass executions for no reason at all, or for the flimsiest of reasons.  For the Leader was always a nihilist, a Nechaev, a Stavrogin from The Devils—except no longer on a tiny scale, marginal, ridiculous, and contemptible.  On the contrary, in the 20th century, Nechaevs and Stavrogins popped up in every country of continental Europe, and took power, and commanded armies and police forces and popular movements.  And every one of those Leaders behaved as God behaves, dealing out what God deals out, which is death.

For, in each version of the myth, before the Reign of God could be achieved, there was always going to be the war of Armageddon—the all-exterminating bloodbath.  This war, in its global reach and its murderousness, was going to resemble the First World War.  It was going to be the Class War (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the Crusade (for the Fascists); or the race war (for the Nazis).  It was going to be a pitiless war—a war on the model of the Battle of Verdun, delivering death on an industrial basis.  A war of extinction.  ‘Viva la Muerte!’ cried one of Franco’s generals.  For death was victory, in the new imagination.

Those several European movements announced many highly imaginative programs for human betterment, and those imaginative programs were always, in their full-scale versions, impractical—programs for the whole of society that could never be put into effect.  But death was practical.  Death was the only revolutionary achievement that could actually be delivered.  The unity of mankind, the reign of purity and the eternal—those goals were out of reach, in any conventional or real-world respect.  But unity, purity, and eternity were readily in hand, in the form of mass death.  So the Leader issued his orders.  ‘And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse…’

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Intelligent Design on Trial

On Thursday, February 16, the UNCG Atheists, Agnostics & Skeptics hosted a public screening of the PBS/NOVA special, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.

This documentary is truly one of the finest presentations of the (ongoing) controversy regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools. Using a Pennsylvania court case, the film works through the evidence and logic offered by those who argue for and against the supposed merit of teaching ‘Intelligent Design’ as a proposed alternative scientific theory to evolution by natural selection.

As Timothy Ferris has written, “Dogmatists like to portray science as just another dogma—to the brazen all is brass—but science is a method, not a faith… Scientists have a story of discovery to tell, dogmatists a story of obedience to authority.”

To all god-fearing anti-evolutionists out there, I encourage you to watch Intelligent Design on Trial, and see for yourself that the most prominent advocates of Intelligent Design are more interested in preserving the authority of their respective traditions than in understanding the truth. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Is Atheism a Religion?

During the most recent weekly meeting of the UNCG Atheists, Agnostics & Skeptics, we discussed the value and meaning of labeling oneself as 'atheist' or 'agnostic.' Some members felt that these terms are unnecessarily esoteric, and that such unfamiliar terminology makes it more difficult to communicate with a broader audience. Others explored the inherent limitations of negatively defining oneself, noting that the label 'atheist' defines an individual only in opposition to other (theistic) ideas, without filling in exactly what alternate worldview the atheist may hold (such as naturalism or humanism). We also discussed contemporary social pressures that many of us experience to stay closeted as atheists (regardless of the term's utility), especially in terms of the consequences for job security and family cohesion.

Tom Rafferty, a friend of our organization, recently posted a video on his blog (Ratio Primoris) of Bill Maher discussing his own views on the meaning of the label 'atheist' in the context of the current trend to equate all evidence-based conclusions with religious dogma. As Tom noted, this is Bill Maher at his best. We're re-posting the video on this blog since it seemed an appropriate continuation of our conversation Friday night.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Imagine No Religion

by Timothy Ferris

Many religious believers share a conviction that religion is the sole or at least the most effective defender of morality. It is not. If it were, religious believers ought at the very least to commit fewer serious crimes than do atheists and agnostics, but such is not the case. As many surveys have shown, atheists and agnostics are, if anything, less apt to commit serious crimes—and they persist in their erstwhile ethicality even though they belong to the most distrusted minority in the modern world. What is  called secularism—meaning atheism, agnosticism, or simply having no interest in religious faith—is on the rise in the United States, having jumped from 8 percent of the population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The trend is geographically widespread—secularism is growing in all fifty states—and likely to accelerate. While only 5 percent of Americans born before 1946 describe themselves as nonbelievers, that number more than doubles for those born in the years 1946-1964 and reaches nearly 20 percent for Americans born since 1977. Yet the American violent crime rate remained flat from 1990 to 1993, and has since been declining. Indeed, crime correlates inversely with levels of religious conviction, if it correlates at all. While 15 percent of all Americans identify themselves as having no religious beliefs, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that nonbelievers make up only two-tenths of 1 percent of inmates. (Christians constitute 80 percent of the American population and 75 percent of its prisoners.) A ten-year study of death-row inmates at Sing-Sing found that 91 percent of those executed for murder were Christians, less than a third of 1 percent atheists. Similar anticorrelations between religion and crime are found internationally. Only 20 percent of Europeans say God plays an important part in their lives, as opposed to 60 percent of Americans, but Europe’s crime rates are lower than America’s. Denmark and Sweden rank among the most atheistic nations in the world—up to three quarters of their citizens identify themselves as nonbelievers—yet these godless souls somehow enjoy admirably low levels of corruption and violent crimes while scoring near the top of the international happiness indices.

Religious fundamentalists are often surprised to hear this, just as their forebears were surprised to learn from explorers’ reports that upright Hindus and Buddhists living in faraway lands comported themselves as ethically as did Anglican bishops. But the basis of such confusion disappears when the genesis of morals is examined empirically. The basic tenets of morality, such as prohibitions against murder and incest, are common to most peoples and most religions. This makes sense if the moral precepts evolved over time, socially and perhaps biologically, because they promoted human survival—as they obviously do—and are reflected in religious texts rather than having been handed down from heaven. If morality evolved, rather than having been independently invented by thousands of gods, people should behave at least as ethically without religion as with it—as, evidently, they do...

…Scientists originally were as religious as the rest of the population, but the scientific process and the knowledge it obtains are so different from religious practices and doctrines that it is becoming increasingly difficult, as science progresses, to accommodate both within a single worldview. Religions value faith but scientists have found, often to their own embarrassment, that having faith in an idea has no bearing on whether the experimental evidence will verify it. (Nobody asked for, much less prayed for, irrational numbers or quantum nonlocality, but they became part of science anyway; nature is as it is, regardless of what we wish for.) Scientific theories stand or fall on their ability to make accurate predictions; religions have such a poor record in this regard that to champion divine prophecy is to risk being thought supercilious or deranged. Religions account for natural phenomena by positing the existence of an invisible and miraculously complex agency, science by sticking to discernable phenomena that are simpler than what they seek to explain. In that sense, God is literally the last thing a scientist should look for when studying nature.

excerpt from The Science of Liberty, p.279-280

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Curious Case of King, NC

King, NC is a small city tucked away in the shadow of Pilot Mountain, some fifty minutes from Greensboro. It's where I and a few other members of the UNCG Atheists grew up and went to school. And now it's an embarrassment to our national value of freedom of religion. The spectacle of theocratic flag-waving mass hysteria was sparked when an Afghan war veteran demanded that the city remove the Christian flag from a veterans memorial at a public park.

But words fail to capture the extent of the insanity.  Please watch the film, In God We Trust and ‘like’ the Remove the Christian Flag from King Facebook page created by the Afghan war veteran who bravely stood up for the preservation of our constitutional separation of church and state. This veteran served our country abroad in order to preserve and defend our freedoms at home. The people of King should be ashamed.

"When the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all."
—Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens

Saturday, January 21, 2012

We Are: United for Equality

An atheist's reflection on opposing Amendment One.
by Christi Sevits

The nonreligious and LGBT communities share a struggle for visibility and acceptance in society. This holds true here in North Carolina, where the state constitution is littered with religious invocations. The numerous references to a higher power begin in the preamble, which “acknowledg[es] our dependence upon Him.” Article VI, Section 8 declares that “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God” is not qualified to serve in public office.

You might be wondering how this relates to LGBT rights. Legislation under the name of Amendment One is underway to constitutionally ban marriage between same-sex partners in North Carolina. The effects of this repugnant amendment endangers the rights of not only gay couples: it will revoke benefits of domestic partners, increase the difficulty of winning court cases involving child custody, and relax domestic violence laws to exclude an unmarried person from bringing an abusive partner to justice.

A lot of the passion I possess towards fighting bigotry in the state constitution comes from my identification as both atheist and bisexual. Amendment One passing means that North Carolina is telling non-heterosexuals they aren’t valued. This is where the We Are Campaign comes in: it strives to educate people on the amendment so that more unite against it. The campaign continues to gain momentum locally, as Coffeeology, The Green Bean, Greensboro Atheist Organization, the UNCG Democrats, and the UNCG Libertarians are a few groups who are pledging their help.

The state constitution already discriminates against atheists. I refuse to stand by and let a document meant to grant freedoms instead take away more rights from me. A resident of North Carolina for seventeen of my nearly twenty-one years, I am no less a citizen of this state than any heterosexual religious person. Why should the state give a damn if I want to marry a woman one day?

Defeating Amendment One will not legalize gay marriage. However, crushing this institutionalized homophobia shows that pro-equality North Carolinians refuse to back down. We cannot allow this amendment to leave a devastating stain on North Carolina’s fight for civil rights. A vote against the amendment on May 8th (early voting taking place from April 19th-May 5th) means a vote for equality.

Friday, January 20, 2012

[video] Fred Edwords: Beyond the Bare Bones

The UNCG Atheists, Agnostics & Skeptics were proud to host Fred Edwords as he presented his talk entitled, 'Beyond the Bare Bones: What Evolution is Teaching Us.' Our friends from the Triangle Freethought Society helped make this evening possible. Dan Whittaker (member of UNCG Atheists) filmed the presentation. The event was held on UNCG's campus, January 17, 2012.

Fred Edwords is National Director of the United Coalition of Reason, as well as a faculty member of the Humanist Institute, National Director of the International Darwin Day Foundation, and serves on the Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Human Origins Initiative at the Smithsonian Institution.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Science Sunday: A Universe Ex Nihilo

by Zach Webb

How did the universe begin? How and when will the universe end? Why is there something rather than nothing? Questions of this sort have distressed human kind for centuries and have been at the center of both religious and philosophical debate for as long as we know. 

In an enthralling lecture at the Atheist Alliance International conference in 2009 that touches on the domains of cosmology as well as particle physics, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss attempts to answer this age old question. The “Woody Allen of physics,” as Dawkins called him at the end of the lecture, delivers a beautiful, reasoned, coherent, and often humorous account of how the universe began and attempts to answer the question often posed by religious apologetics, “why is there something as opposed to nothing?” In a very non-esoteric way, Lawrence Krauss describes how recent progress in the field of physics has shed new light on these ‘un-answerable’ philosophical questions. From Einstein’s field equations of General Relativity to the computer simulated models of quantum fluctuations of empty space, we see that the universe is not how we thought it was; it is, in fact, more absurd than we could have ever possibly imagined. 

Krauss develops these ideas in a manner that is easy for the layman to understand. He further explains how we live in a flat universe, a universe with total energy equal to zero. He states in the lecture that he “knew this had to be the right model, because it’s the only one that is mathematically beautiful,” and what he meant is that the flat universe model is the only model that has total energy zero and thus could arise solely from quantum fluctuations of empty space. Quantum fluctuations are temporary changes in the energy in a certain point in space that arise due to the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. For reasons that I do not have space to go into we can only know so much about the energy and time of existence of certain particles and this can lead to violations of the conservation of energy principle, but only on small time scales. Krauss takes us back to the beginning of space and time itself and presents the most recent evidence for how our universe evolved and the frightening implications for how our universe will one day end.
“Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded.  And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand.  It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics.  You are all stardust.  You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life – weren’t created at the beginning of time.  They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode.

So, forget Jesus.  The stars died so that you could be here today.”  -Lawrence Krauss

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Civic engagement pays off: new mayor of Greensboro fortifies the wall between church and state!

In the midst Republican presidential candidates spewing ignorance in the name of God, there are boundless more examples of the religious right hijacking our government with impunity from the electorate.  This story is not one of them.

Last year, former Greensboro mayor Bill Knight ended the moment of silence and dictated that council meetings would begin with prayer. “I think this adds a very distinctly American quality and a very necessary element,” he said. Knight did not understand that America was not founded upon Christian principles but his divisiveness is backed by an unhelpful Supreme Court decision that permits "nonsectarian" invocation.

Fortunately, you don't have to go all the way to the Supreme Court to reaffirm institutional respect for religious liberty.  In response to the city council prayer a handful of Greensboro residents, including several members of our group, issued statements to city council.  While Knight ignored our appeals for inclusiveness, our perseverance did not go unnoticed.  One council member, Robbie Perkins, supported reinstating the moment of silence from the onset and promised our group he would deliver if elected mayor.

While the UNCG AAS doesn't explicitly endorse candidates, many of our members gathered at the ballot (some for the first time) and cast their vote.  The election was a landslide and Mayor Perkins opened his first meeting with a moment of silence!

Take a moment to observe these diverse voices of Greensboro, using the framework of democracy, to reestablish the equal inclusion of both religious and nonreligious people:

While we can declare this a victory, the attack on nonreligious people persists with the tireless arrogance. The Supreme Court is expected to decide shortly on an appeal from our neighbors in Forsyth County regarding government sponsored invocations of "Jesus."  The ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are backing the brave couple who filed the initial complaint.

"Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814